On a weather-beaten stretch of the Kansas prairie, a family fights to survive. Molly Hartsell is only twenty-seven, but years of barely scraping by have made her old before her time. Her children are frail, tired, and hungry. If something doesn’t change soon, the Hartsells are doomed. But Molly’s husband returns from the bank with good news: He sold the farm and invested every penny in property far away in Colorado’s lush Powder Valley. It’s a new start for the Hartsells, but it turns out their troubles are just beginning.
When the Hartsells arrive in Powder Valley and discover they were sold a bill of false goods, it seems as if the family is ruined. But Sherriff Pat Stevens—with the help of his loyal friends Sam and Ezra—will fight tooth and nail to defeat the crooked swindlers and make sure everyone in town can call Powder Valley their home.
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Fight for Powder Valley!
A Powder Valley Western
By Brett Halliday
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1942 William Morrow and Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The little frame house stood alone and unprotected on the flat Kansas prairie. Unpainted, the weathered board siding was warped by the terrific heat of many Kansas summers; each board drawing away from its fellows and leaving cracks through which the sand sifted when the winds blew.
A picket fence straggled disconsolately around a small yard of hard-packed dirt, baked to the consistency of concrete by the blazing heat of the sun that hung in an always cloudless sky.
In the rear of the four-room frame house, half a dozen Leghorn chickens were huddled in the shade of a chicken coop where a thermometer would stand at one hundred and twenty degrees a full ten hours of each day.
It was only a few degrees cooler in the tiny kitchen where Molly Hartsell stood at a window staring out at the long straight road leading away into the flat nothingness of the West. There were cultivated fields on each side of the road as far as Molly could see. Straight rows of dwarfed cornstalks, scorched and drooping under the white-hot fury of the sun. The outer edges of the leaves were already beginning to turn brown and the stalks had ceased their struggle for growth entirely.
Molly Hartsell held to the windowsill with one hand and brushed limp strands of hair back from her face with the other. Her features were thin and sharp, her lips bloodless. Her eyes were haunted by despair, veiled with apathy. Her body was thin and angular, flat-breasted like an old woman. She was twenty- seven years old, but the past ten years on the desolate prairie farm had taken their toll of the vibrant young girl who had come to Kansas as Joe Hartsell's bride from Pennsylvania.
Through a doorway into the dining room, Molly could see Mary and Joey playing together on the uncovered floor. Mary was nine and Joey was seven. They had grave, unchildlike faces. Their hair had a curious lack of color, as though all the pigment had been bleached from it by too much exposure to the pitiless Kansas sun. They were playing "going away" without much enthusiasm, packing and unpacking an old grip which Molly had brought with her from Pennsylvania. They were thin, listless children, improperly nourished and completely lacking that bright expectancy of hope that is every child's natural heritage.
Baby-Doll sat on the floor behind Molly. Baby-Doll was not quite two years old. She still retained a hint of babyish plumpness, but the dimples were fast going away and she, too, wore a grave, preoccupied look as she sucked on her big toe and didn't get any nourishment from it.
A cloud of white dust balled up from the shimmering heat waves westward. It hung low above the horizon without perceptible movement, yet Molly Hartsell's thin features took on a curious tenseness as she stared at it.
That would be her husband returning from the county seat. He had set out before sunup that morning in the lumber wagon. Molly gripped the windowsill with both hands, and her knuckles turned white with strain. She was hardly conscious of what she did, but a little prayer formed in her mind. Dear God — please, dear God — the unspoken words repeated themselves over and over monotonously in her mind.
The ball of white dust was growing larger now, suspended above a black speck in the roadway.
She turned away from the window, setting her white teeth together tightly. She wore a single faded garment of gingham which clung dankly to her thin body. She was barefooted, and when she moved from the window the sweaty imprint of each slender foot remained behind momentarily on the wooden floor.
She said, "Don't do that, Baby-Doll," but her voice was listless and without conviction. Baby-Doll kept right on sucking her toe, though with an air of stubbornness rather than of any real hope.
Molly moved slowly to the doorway leading into the dining room and cautioned, "You'd better put your things away now, children. Your father's coming home."
Joey turned quickly, his little face screwed into a fleeting look of interest. "Will he bring us some candy, Mom?"
Nine-year-old Mary answered for her mother. "'Course he won't. He's been to the bank to see 'bout the mortgage."
"But he might get some candy, too," protested Joey.
"Naw," said Mary from the lordly pinnacle of her advanced years. "You can't buy candy an' pay mortgages too, can you, Mom?"
Molly Hartsell said, "I wouldn't count on any candy, children. But there'll be some syrup ... and I'll make potato pancakes for supper."
Neither of the children greeted this substitute with marked enthusiasm. They began gathering up their toys from the middle of the floor.
Molly returned to her vigil at the kitchen window. The team of horses and wagon were close now. The team was trotting. Molly noted this phenomenon with surprise. A small fever of excitement took possession of her veins. Could it be possible that Joe ...?
No. She knew Joe too well. Deep inside her husband was a streak of stubbornness that nothing could overcome. He would have made some arrangements to renew the mortgage. He always did. He had been renewing it for ten years. Ten years of constant struggle to keep the interest and taxes paid. Ten years during which the fertile land had yielded exactly two crops. The other eight crops had either been burned up by the sun or washed out by floods before the corn had a chance to mature.
She could see Joe now. Sitting very erect on the spring seat of the heavy wagon. A mist clouded Molly's eyes. She did not wipe it away. Through the mist she saw her husband as he had been a decade before — before Kansas had taken its toll of his youth and his strength. He had been proud then, ambitious and sure of himself — so sure of his destiny — so eager to prove to his young wife that they had made no mistake in turning their faces westward from the East in which they had been reared.
She blinked her eyes shut and tears rolled down her cheeks. She gripped the sill fiercely and prayed to God for strength to greet Joe with a smile when he returned to tell her everything was arranged so they could remain on the farm and starve another year. That was all she could hope for now. A year-to-year struggle to keep possession of the farm, with always the faint hope that next year would be different; that next year nature would smile on them and let them make a crop.
Molly Hartsell stooped and lifted the hem of her cotton dress to wipe the tears from her cheeks and eyes. She could hear Joe turning into the yard now. The dull thud of heavy hoofs and the creaking of the old wagon.
She moved slowly to the back door, forcing her lips to form the wistful semblance of a smile for her husband.
He climbed down from the front hub of the wagon to the ground. The team stood with drooped heads, their flanks heaving and wet with sweat.
Joe Hartsell was a tall, gaunt man. His face was the color of old leather, seamed with weariness and with an inward sense of futility which gave him the look of an old man. His wide shoulders were stooped as though under the weight of a burden which never left his back; his eyes were a pale, washed-out blue beneath ragged brown eyebrows.
He lifted a box of groceries from the wagon and said, "Hello, Molly," cheerfully enough.
She answered him with the same enforced accent on cheerfulness. The children came crowding into the kitchen to stand around in big-eyed hope while he set the box of groceries carefully on the oilcloth covered table. They knew better than to ask for candy, but they were not yet old enough to cease hoping for a miracle.
"Hot today," said Joe Hartsell. He held out his big work-worn hands to Molly. The sleeves of his patched shirt were short, showing knobby, sunburned wrists.
Molly said, "Yes. It has been hot." She moved toward him slowly, catching her lower lip between her teeth. Joe's big hands were as gentle as a woman's. He put them on Molly's shoulders and drew her close to him. He laid his lean cheek against her hair and answered her unasked question:
"I saw Mr. Morgan at the bank today."
The strength went out of Molly. She leaned against Joe, pressing her face against his chest. In a smothered tone, she surmised hopelessly, "I suppose you fixed everything up all right."
He said, "N-o-o, Molly. Not exactly, that is ..."
His tone was so queer that Molly leaned back against his hands to look up into his face. There was no mist over her eyes this time, yet she had that same strange feeling that had come to her while she watched him drive up. This hardly seemed the husband she knew so well. He was more like the man she had married long ago. The worn features remained the same, but there was a suggestion of inner tensity that gave him back something of the youth he had lost along the way. His eyes had a brightness she had not seen for a long time.
She began to breathe swiftly through compressed lips. "Oh, Joe! Mr. Morgan refused to renew the mortgage?" Though she knew it would hurt him she could not keep the singing tone of gladness from her voice.
Joe looked puzzled. "Why, no, Molly. I guess Mr. Morgan knows I'm a good risk." He paused to clear his throat.
The animation went out of Molly's face. She said dully, "Oh. I thought maybe ..."
"I've decided to give up the farm." Joe spoke humbly. He looked away from Molly, over her head. Corded muscles stood out on either side of his throat. "After all these years ... I guess I have to admit we just can't make a go of it. I've tried, Molly, for you and the children."
"Oh, Joe!" Molly was crying. She clung to him fiercely.
A look of hurt fled across Joe's face. "I guess I'm not much of a husband. I haven't been able to give you much of the things you deserve. And now ... I've got to admit Kansas has got me licked."
He stopped uncertainly. Molly was choking, laughing hysterically through her sobs. Her upturned face was radiant.
"You ... you don't mind?"
"Mind? Oh God, Joe. If you only knew how I've prayed ..."
"That's all right then. That's wonderful. I might have known you'd take it like that. But I got to worrying after I made the deal. A man never knows about a woman. Some of them are funny about leaving their homes...."
"We're really going to leave, Joe? It's all settled?"
"Yep. I signed the papers today. Bank took over the farm ... gave me five hundred dollars clear over and above the mortgage. That's not much, but ..."
"Much? It sounds like a million dollars to me. Why, with five hundred dollars ... that's enough to get started again."
"Yep. That's what I figured. When it all came up so sudden ..."
"I'll have to get off a letter to Mother," Molly planned happily. "Just think, Joe, she's never seen any of her grandchildren. How soon can we leave? When shall I tell her we'll arrive?"
Joe's face wore a confused look of fright. "You haven't let me tell you, honey. We're not going back. We're headed West. To Colorado. To Powder Valley." He rolled the words out softly as though they tasted good on his lips. "How does that sound to you?"
Molly drew back from him. She groped behind her, caught hold of a kitchen chair and settled herself carefully in it. "Powder Valley? What do you mean, Joe?"
"Why, it's all settled. Luckiest thing in the world. The man happened to be right there in the bank while I was talking to Mr. Morgan. It's a big land company. Irrigation, Molly! That's the ticket. No more waiting for it to rain ... and then getting a flood. Irrigation's the coming thing. All the water you want when you want it. It's virgin soil. Never been touched by a plow. You can grow anything. Garden truck. Fruit. You can have a flower garden. It's a valley in the mountains, honey. Protected by the hills from heavy snow. They're building a dam right now to store up water for the farmers that'll be flocking in."
"And you ... you mean you've ... already decided ...?"
"I had to, Molly. A chance like that doesn't come every day. We're the first buyers and we got our pick. Fifty acres right in the bottom-land. Ten dollars an acre is all it costs. Imagine that ... for land that'll be worth a hundred an acre as soon as it's under cultivation. You see, they want settlers to move in and get things started. The price will go up as soon as word gets around. It's cool in Colorado, Molly. Bright sunlight and clear air. And there's hunting and trapping in the winter ... why, Mr. Shultz says a man can feed his family the year 'round on game and fish."
"Powder Valley?" Molly repeated again, as though the two words hypnotized her.
"It isn't so far from here. Only a couple of hundred miles. A nice little vacation trip, Molly. Like when we first came to Kansas. Do you remember?"
Molly nodded. Yes, she remembered.
"I thought we'd make out a list of what we can take in the wagon and have a sale to get rid of everything else. That'll bring in enough money to get us there all right."
Joe Hartsell was striding up and down the kitchen, pounding a bony fist into a calloused palm. The two children had drawn back into the doorway, watching him out of big, interested eyes. Baby-Doll kept her place on the floor, again trying to draw nourishment out of her big toe.
"It'll be pioneering, Molly. Real pioneering this time. It's what I was looking for when we first came West. We shouldn't have stopped here. We should have kept on going. But it's not too late. Powder Valley. West to Powder Valley! Doesn't that sort of wake up the blood in your veins?"
Molly said, "Yes, Joe." She slowly arose from her chair. There was an exalted look of martyrdom on her pinched features. She whispered, "Yes, Joe. If that's what you want," and caught him to press a fierce kiss on his astonished lips.CHAPTER 2
A feeling of pride always welled up inside Pat Stevens when he rode down into Powder Valley from the headquarters of the Lazy Mare ranch at the northern end of the valley. It wasn't so much a specific pride in ownership of one of the largest and finest spreads in the valley; it was more a deep-rooted sense of fulfillment, a feeling of belonging, an awed sort of pride in the realization that he, Pat Stevens, had had an integral part in making Powder Valley what it was today — one of the finest strips of cattle country in the entire West.
Serene and peaceful under the bright Colorado sunlight, Powder Valley stretched out southward from the Lazy Mare ranch a distance of some thirty miles, protected on the north by the Culebra Range, with the jagged Spanish Peaks forming a natural barrier on the southwest. A protected region of lush range grass, with mild winters that were just cold enough to build firm flesh on the sturdy, big-boned Herefords that Pat had been instrumental in bringing to the valley years before, it was, indeed, virtually a cattleman's paradise. In the spring and summer the herds ranged high on the mountain slopes that had been blanketed with snowball winter to provide sufficient moisture for the raw growth of rich grass, and in the fall the stock was moved down into the protected valley to winter-feed on the long grass that grew knee-high in the bottom-lands on each side of straggling Powder Creek.
Powder Valley had not always been a scene of serenity and peace, nor had Pat Stevens always been a respectable and settled land-owner. Both had a turbulent history of bloodshed and violence; both had, in a sense, attained respectability together.
It had been more than ten years, now, since Pat Stevens had ridden into the valley with his two gun-fighting partners, Sam Sloan and One-Eyed Ezra, to do battle with the West's most vicious gang of outlaws; a fight to the death that ended by overthrowing the reign of terror that had held the valley in thralldom and making it a place where honest men could once more ride abroad in safety and in peace.
It had ended, too, the wild free life that Pat Stevens had known before. Sally Stevens had seen to that. Marriage to Sally had been good for Pat. She had given him a son and a sense of responsibility.
Now it was a mellowed and a mature Pat Stevens who rode away from the Lazy Mare toward the little town of Dutch Springs one afternoon in late spring. Slightly heavier, though still retaining the trim lines given him by a vigorous youth spent in the saddle, with a tinge of premature gray, now, along the edges of his hair; his gray eyes were clear and bright, without that steely hardness that had been characteristic of them when he had worn two guns in open holsters and his gaze had challenged any man to draw against him.
Always, when Pat rode down into the valley nowadays, he drank in the clear cool air of the high mountain valley and let his gaze roam over the peaceful scene with a queer uneasy sense of foreboding within him. It was crazy, of course. There was no reason for it. Except — well, sometimes he thought it was just too damn' good to be true. Sometimes it seemed to him that he was standing off by the side and critically surveying himself as he rode. Not a worry in the world. Yet, long ago, he had learned that life has a way of providing irritations just when things are going along the smoothest.
Excerpted from Fight for Powder Valley! by Brett Halliday. Copyright © 1942 William Morrow and Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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